by Joe Chapadeau
In some ways, the story of rock & roll in Little Falls begins and ends on opposite sides of West Monroe Street. In 1955, my siblings and I were all attending Monroe Street elementary school in Little Falls. During that summer, we all participated in a talent contest at the school playground. I sang the Elvis Presley song “Heartbreak Hotel” and my brother Gary sang “The Wayward Wind.” Those playground performances earned us our first public performance at a weekly band concert in Western (Burke) Park.
Gary and I took some guitar lessons at Salvi’s Music Store, but we never got too far with that. But in 1957, a wild man named Jerry Lee Lewis came on television on the Ed Sullivan Show and blew the roof off with “Whole Lotta Shakin.” I was hooked since he was playing piano in a way I wanted to imitate. I had been taking piano lessons for years and I was ready to create my own style, so rock & roll came naturally to me. I began spending hours banging on my old upright piano singing and playing this exciting new music.
The famous movie “American Graffiti” asks the question: “where were you in ’62?” Well, I was in my senior year at Little Falls high school and that spring Gary and I came up with the idea to form our own rock & roll band. So, I got my classmate Steve Malek to join in since Steve had studied guitar with the well-known Carmen Carmanica from Utica. Also in our first band called The Cruisers were George Gregory on drums and Lori Snyder on rhythm guitar; they were both from Little Falls. I am not sure who came up with the name The Cruisers, but it seemed to catch on.
As The Cruisers, we played our first gig at the Mohawk Valley Country Club on April 7, 1962, and a week later we played our first paid gig at the Little Falls high school gym on Main Street. We received $35 for the five of us, $7 apiece, not bad for 1962 we thought. We were an immediate success and we were on our way.
Big changes came in 1963. There were some places that we could not play because there was no piano for me, so I became the new drummer since George had gone off to college. So too had Steve, but I was able to get a great guitarist named Tom Dobrovich who was my classmate at Utica College. Henry Dise from Little Falls joined the band as our bass guitar player and we began playing dances and clubs up and down the Valley doing all of our favorite songs of the day like “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer.”
In 1964, more changes occurred as Henry left the band and Gary took over playing bass guitar in addition to his frontman singing duties. Also, a popular band that we admired, The Original Playboys from Utica, had broken up and we were able to acquire their guitar player Tony Scialdone, A.K.A. Tony Troy who was also my classmate at Utica College and is still my good friend today. Tony performed in 2018 with the great musician Stevie Rigo and me at the Little Falls Historical Society Museum as part of their history of rock & roll in Little Falls exhibit. Longtime Little Falls rock and roll vocalist Mike Walo also played with Stevie and me at another Historical Society performance. We got called icons, imagine that! I digress –
Up to 1964, Gary was our main singer, but now we had four singers as Tony sang falsetto songs like “Sherry” and Tom sang beautiful ballads like “For Your Love.”
By 1965, the so-called British Invasion was in full swing so it was time for us to change our name, style, and image. I returned to playing keyboards as I bought a portable Vox organ like the one played by The Animals so now we could play “The House of the Rising Sun” properly. We needed a new drummer and found Larry Miller from Dolgeville. Tom formed his own band and we were a quartet again. Our new name The King Beats can be seen on the drumhead in a band promo picture taken at the “castle” in Middleville.
A major highlight in our musical careers was our appearance on the television show Twist-a-rama USA on September 19, 1965. It was a local dance show on Sunday mornings hosted by Hank Brown from Little Falls and featured local bands playing live. It was required to have an original song, so I wrote and we recorded a song called “Nothing About Life At All” which we performed on the show and it is on the Twist-a-rama album. The song was in the newly popular Bob Dylan style and featured me playing harmonica as well. By now we were playing places like Doyle’s Lounge in Utica and Grippe’s and Club Royale in Frankfort.
A unique feature of the band was our mode of transportation, a 1950 Cadillac hearse we bought, customized, and painted gold. It turned lots of heads and got lots of attention.
Our favorite place to play was at the Sunday afternoon teen dances at the old DeCarlo-Staffo post which was located across from the fire station on William Street in Little Falls. My dad ran the door and my mom ran the refreshment stand and everyone had great fun. At one point, we had four local girls on stage as the Cruiserettes: Laura Leslie, Sherilyn Carrig, Gen Ashley, and Nora Buccafurno. Also, a frequent guest was a sax player from Herkimer named Chickie Vennera who later became a Hollywood actor.
The last version of the King Beats from 1966-67 had me on organ, Gary on guitar, Roger McCabe from Utica on bass, and Jim Kilts from St Johnsville on drums as Tony and Larry had left the band. 1967 was “the summer of love” when Gary and I drove the Caddy hearse to California and sold it in San Francisco. Upon returning home, I went on to teach school and Gary joined a band called the Joint Commission.
On April 12, 1968, Gary crashed his Chevy on the Gorge View cutoff and was killed instantly, but fortunately, none of his passengers were badly injured. Cruiser or King Beat no more, it was for me, and maybe all of Little Falls, the day the music died.
In 2011, a well-attended Little Falls Historical Society walking tour of Church Street cemetery included Gary’s grave. Several people in attendance shared personal 1960’s-era rock and roll memories about Gary, the bands, and the gold hearse. The Cruisers and King Beats had clearly influenced an entire generation of Little Falls people.
The 2017 Historical Society Old Bank Museum exhibit “the golden era of rock and roll in Little Falls” followed as did a number of articles for the Historical Society’s 2017 writing series. All of these articles can be viewed on the Historical Society’s website. A 2018 cemetery tour also included Gary’s gravesite and I was asked to speak about my brother and our band days; I was both pleased and honored to take part.
Fifty years after Gary’s death, The Cruisers’ saga had come full circle as we arrived at his gravesite – directly across the street from the old Monroe Street school where it all began. Rock on all Rock City Rockers!
Joe Chapadeau is a member of the Little Falls Historical Society.